From Naval History and Heritage Command, Communication and Outreach Division
As a Union gunboat, the Southern-named USS Hatteras had a successful career in chasing down blockade runners during the early days of the Civil War.
But her greatest victory came 121 years after she was sunk on Jan. 11, 1863. That was when the U.S. District Court determined the U.S. Navy was the legal guardian of the steam side-wheeler’s wreck site, saving her from commercial salvaging companies and private treasure hunters who had filed an admiralty suit in 1978.
Artifacts from the ship, used as evidence in the case, were returned to the U.S. Navy, where they are part of the Naval History and Heritage Command’s collection administered by its Underwater Archaeology Branch. The wreck is also protected by the Sunken Military Craft Act.
After the court decision, the Navy, through NHHC, partnered with the Texas Historical Commission and the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management to monitor the site and make sure no oil rigs are placed in the vicinity. A survey was done in 2007 to determine the impact of hurricanes. After Hurricane Ike in 2008, sport divers reported seeing more of the ship’s mechanical works exposed.
In 2012, Hatteras made history again as one of the first offshore test subjects of a 3-dimensional sonar scan.
Scanning the Side-Wheeler
The Hatteras survey was a partnership with the Texas Historical Commission, Bureau of Ocean Energy Management (BOEM), the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) Maritime Heritage Program, NOAA’s Office of Coastal Study (OCS), ExplorOcean, Northwest Hydro, staff from NOAA’s Flower Garden Banks National Marine Sanctuary (FGBNMS) aboard its research vessel Manta, and the educational organization OceanGate Foundation, among others.
Heather G. Brown, an underwater archaeologist with the Naval History and Heritage Command’s Underwater Archaeology Branch, was on site for the survey, which took two days in September. The purpose of the survey was to try and get a good idea of how much of the site remained exposed after recent hurricane activity, as well as an opportunity to test new scanning equipment, Brown said.
One innovative aspect about the BlueView system is that provides a large amount of very accurate data very quickly, even in dark water, and the level of detail it provides is much greater than side-scan sonar or multibeam echo sounder, Brown explained. Divers descended nearly 60 feet to place the Teledyne BlueView 3D scanner’s tripod at various locations around Hatteras.
“The heavy iron machinery was still left, although the wood was gone. There may be some preserved in the sand but it hasn’t been excavated to see if any planking is left,” Brown said.
The pictures showed the iron sidewheels on the ship and the iron shaft that connected the two wheels on either side of the ship’s narrow deck. Trawling nets that have snagged on the exposed machinery have scattered some of it around the wreck site. Click here for a video of the scan.
“Our main focus right now is to educate the public about what’s there so they can respect it as part of their heritage,” Brown said. “We want people to understand why this is important and why there is a need to preserve it.”
Built in 1861 by Harlan and Hollingsworth of Wilmington, Del., the side-wheel steamer called Saint Marys was purchased that year by the U.S. Navy for $110,000 and up-armored with four 32-pound guns and one 20-pound gun. That builder’s plate is among the artifacts taken from USS Hatteras and is now on loan from NHHC to the Bullock Texas State History Museum in Austin, Texas.
There’s no mention as to why the refitted gunboat would be renamed after a city from one of the Southern states that had recently ceded from the Union. But whatever the reason, the 210-foot by 18-foot gunboat did her part as a member of the South Atlantic Blockading Squadron at Key West, Fla., in November 1861. Her captain was Cmdr. George F. Emmons, who led Hatteras into capturing and burning seven small blockade runners carrying supplies such as cotton and turpentine. They also burned railroad terminals, other facilities and captured half of a small garrison and its commander.
During early 1862, Hatteras and her crew cruised off the coast of Louisiana, where the gunboat stymied the blockade runners’ trade route, capturing several. After a successful first year, Emmons was relieved by Cmdr. Homer Blake in Nov. 1862.
The Union had prevented commerce flowing from Galveston to Mexico with its Western Gulf Squadron, under the command of the Navy’s first rear admiral, David G. Farragut. But a Confederate uprising during the early morning hours of Jan. 1, 1863, allowed Gen. John B. Magruder’s troops to re-take Galveston. In the process, USS Harriet Lane was captured, along with two barques and a schooner. USS Westfield, which had become grounded, was scuttled to prevent capture.
Although the Confederates had retaken Galveston, the Union blockade continued to control commerce at the harbor. Members of the South Atlantic Squadron, including the gunboat Hatteras, were diverted to Galveston to shore up the Galveston fleet.
Mid-afternoon on Jan. 11, a new ship was sighted on the horizon. USS Hatteras pulled away from the rest of the squadron to investigate. It was CSS Alabama. Built in secrecy in Great Britain, the 220-by-31.8-foot sloop-of-war had a bit of a Clipper look with her square rigging, which her skipper, Capt. Raphael Semmes, played to his advantage. Hatteras trailed the ship for four hours and 20 miles out from the safety of Galveston Harbor. With a Union Jack flag flying, the cruiser claimed at first to be “Britannic Majesty’s Ship Petrel.”
Blake remained suspicious, however, and announced he was sending a boarding party to check her credentials. As soon as the boat left Hatteras, Semmes struck the Union Jack and raised the Confederate Stars and Bars, announcing it was CSS Alabama, then blasting Hatteras broadside with its 32-pound cannons.
For 13 minutes, both ships fired away at each other at close range, but then a shell burst in Hatteras’ engine room, killing two men and blasting apart the iron plates on her hull. As Hatteras began to sink Blake ordered the guns flooded to prevent explosions and sent a shot across Alabama’s bow to acknowledge defeat.
Alabama sent boats to help Hatteras’ crew and her captain off the ship while the Hatteras boarding party got away and made it back to the squadron. Alabama took her prisoners to Port Royal, Jamaica, where they were later freed.
The following day, USS Brooklyn found the wreck of Hatteras still upright. With the topmast poking above the water, Hatteras’ commissioning pennant still waved.
Artifacts from USS Hatteras taken in the mid-1970s and now with the Naval History and Heritage Command, Washington, D.C.